It’s close to the end of the year, and traditionally this is when people start compiling their year-end lists. But this isn’t just the end of the year, it’s the end of the decade. So on behalf of that, in addition to a top 10 of 2009, I’m putting together my top 25 of the decade (since 100 is too much and I just don’t have time for 50)– 25 films that thrilled me, moved me, stuck with me, and have inspired me as a writer and as a person. Each one of these films has on some level changed the way that I perceive cinema, either in a greater context or on a more microscopic level; they’re films that I have revisited or intend to revisit for years to come.
I typically find lists like this tricky because inevitably you end up missing something that feels valuable. If upon reading each installment in turn, and viewing the entire list together, you feel that something is missing then it might be best to think of this list as a more condensed version of what would inevitably be a more robust and complete list had I the time to produce one. But let’s not put off the festivities any longer– here’s installment #1, entries 25-21:
25. Fantastic Mr. Fox: Wes Anderson is no slouch behind the camera, but it has taken him a decade of filmmaking to stumble upon a medium that truly suits his style. While stop-motion animation has seen a slight resurgence in recent years with prominent entries in the genre such as Corpse Bride and Coraline making splashes, Anderson’s low-tech stop-motion treatment of Roald Dahl’s 1970 book stands out as the best of the bunch. It is also arguably the best film Anderson has made to date, a singular and unique piece of cinema that is strikingly visual and replete with excellent vocal performances by its ensemble cast. The movie’s world is spry, full of life and painstakingly detailed without relying on modern and sophisticated techniques and technologies to provide those vivacious qualities. Despite his detachment from the process, Anderson has clearly found his fire again in bringing his vision to life; even if Fox does not signal a sustained return to form for the director, it remains a masterful entry in his career.
24. Brick: There is an amusing incongruity at the heart of Rian Johnson’s directorial debut– the average teenager, more likely than not, has never seen the movies which Brick is a descendant of (such as The Big Sleep or Kiss Me Deadly). Yet in this film, the character archetypes and dialogue of such iconic and classic film noirs are dispersed amongst the student body of a modern day high school. Johnson, however, is too talented (and too passionate about and familiar with the genre) to simply lift those ideas and transpose them upon a movie and call it his own; instead he employs his knowledge of noir characters and dialect to create a neo-noir that is modernized and simultaneously rooted in noir tradition. The result is a shockingly original update of the hard-boiled detective stories of the 1930’s to 50’s, stylish, clever, and full of verve. The movie’s secret weapon? A grown-up Joseph Gorden-Levitt playing the tough-guy detective character, without whom the film would still be excellent but lacking the elevation that his career-high performance grants.
23. Milk: Part of what draws me to film is the medium’s ability to teach and to educate, and so when a movie’s goal is to introduce its audience to a subject that they may not be familiar with I tend to respect it, even if I ultimately don’t like it very much. Gus Van Sant’s 2008 biopic about California’s first openly gay public official, Harvey Milk, is just such a movie– though make no mistake, it is a completely wonderful movie from start to finish and not just a work of art whose intentions I admire. At the center of this layered interpretation of the life and death of Harvey Milk is Sean Penn, turning in my favorite performance of his career as the eponymous and doomed city legislator. Here he plays Milk with restraint that I forgot the actor possessed, never downplaying Harvey’s charming and infectious personality or his tenacity, but also never taking his portrayal over the top and out of the movie’s bounds of realism. (One of the film’s final images– the real Harvey Milk, positively beaming– seems to exist to confirm the veracity of Penn’s performance.) And ultimately, that devotion to reality is the movie’s purpose– as our country still debates endlessly over the “controversies” of gay marriage, Milk is timely and topical, but more than that it is undeniably an essential part of America’s modern identity.
22. Before Sunset: In 1995, Richard Linklater told us the story of two young people– Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy– meeting in Vienna, getting to know each other, and falling in love with his film Before Sunrise. Nine years later, Celine and Jesse met again, and they continued the conversation that they started almost a decade prior. It is a rare sequel that manages to stand above the original, but Before Sunset is just such a film. Like its predecessor, the film is short on plot and heavy on the dialogue, following Celine and Jesse through Paris as the latter kills time before flying back to the States; he has finished a book tour through Europe to promote his new novel, written about his encounter with Celine. But the conversation has changed in this continuation of the first film; they talk about how their lives unfolded in the interim between first meeting and reuniting. The change in the discussion is natural given the time that has gone by, and it’s challenging material for anyone, single or otherwise. The unflinching examination of relationships and unrequited love is told with incredible technical proficiency; it is shot in real-time using long, uninterrupted takes that go on for as long as seven minutes before cutting to a new shot. Capturing actors talking to each other for that long is a feat in itself, but doing so as said actors walk through a crowded city street is nothing short of a marvel. There may be films in this decade with more panache and flair, but I guarantee you will find few that boast the same level of technical artistry.
21. Primer: What would you do if you had a time machine? What would you try to change? Would you try to make the world a better place for mankind? Would you try to just make it a better place for yourself? Primer‘s main characters, engineers Aaron and Abe, take the latter route. They decide, at first, to take advantage of the stock market, playing it like a violin using their knowledge of the future, but it doesn’t take long for them to succumb to the desire to try and mess with other aspects of their lives. Time loops and paradoxes arise, and things get complicated. In a good way. When a film like Primer gets confusing, one of two things happens: Either that confusion captivates its viewers or infuriates them. Primer succeeds in being engaging, nay absorbing, even when the concepts become too abstract for the non-scientific mind, though it requires you to pay attention even at its most indecipherable. Should you do so, you will be rewarded with an incredible, intricate, and evolving time travel yarn, perhaps one of the best ever spun. Maybe the real triumph of the film is that it looks like it was made for the combined dollar amount found in the wallets of the cast and crew; it’s a film propelled by little more than determination and imagination. There is a charm to the cobbled-together feel of the film (and truthfully Primer‘s D.I.Y. tone is part of the point); like other entries on this list, films like Primer exist to showcase what people can do with talent and creativity in lieu of a studio budget.
That’s all for this entry. Keep an eye out for the next installment, 20-16, soon.